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Top 10 Underrated Fantasy Stories Before 1937

ophiucha . . . Comments

J.R.R. Tolkien changed the face of the fantasy genre when he published “The Hobbit” in 1937 and subsequently his famous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But with this defining moment in the genre, many of the great works that preceded Tolkien have been forgotten in time. This list gives you my top ten underrated classics of fantasy prior to the publication of “The Hobbit.”


by Hope Mirrlees


Publication Date: 1926

Probably the most obscure thing I shall mention on this list, this is a rather interesting tale in an alternate world where some rather mundane people live in peace, but are interrupted by a flow of fairy fruit form the neighboring lands. It explores some interesting themes for a high fantasy novel, and it is certainly something different for the well-read fan. I would recommend her other works as highly, but most are a bit difficult to find – all but this one are out of print. Still, if you can procure a copy of anything else by Mirrlees, make sure you take the opportunity. [Read it here.]


The Water-Babies
by Charles Kingsley

Image 646 1

Publication Date: 1863

This is a children’s novel that I might not recommend for the kids, but anybody with an interest in Victorian fairy tales and a bit of controversy absolutely must pick this one up. It has moral messages (in blatant form, as children’s novels are wont to do, to such an extent that one character is named Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby) on a variety of topics, most notably child labor but also on a number of religious and scientific topics. Kingsley himself was a Reverend, but he was not against the at-the-time very controversial publications of Charles Darwin. Look at it in the right perspective, readers, and you’ll find quite the metaphor for the going ons of the time as well as a fun little fairy tale. [Read it here.]


The House on the Borderland
by William Hope Hodgson

3927 400X600

Publication Date: 1908

This is a horror novel, certainly, but this was really the novel that made way for writers of the Lovecraftian-sort (including H.P. himself). It is a darker branch of the fantasy genre, but the cosmic and supernatural horrors found in the House on the Borderland are no less fantastic than anything Tolkien could conjure. If you enjoy the supernatural as much as you do elves and dragons, then this a great story to look to for the origins of your subgenre. [Read it here.]


Lost Horizon
by James Hilton


Publication Date: 1933

Here is an instance of an aspect of this novel exceeding the fame of the novel itself. Many of you have probably heard of ‘Shangri-La’. There are a buildings, gardens, albums, songs, a manga series, towns, a region of Saturn’s moon, and a chain of hotels in Hong Kong named after it. In fact, it was even mentioned on another page here on Listverse. But this grand story of immortality, British imperialism, and all you could hope for from a fantasy novel. It is underrepresented for such an influential piece of literature, and it is a very enjoyable read even ignoring the wonderful world of Shangri-La. [Read it here.]


The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald


Publication Date: 1872

This is a simple, subtle story of fantasy and wonder in the form of a children’s book. We have the classics: dungeons, goblins, princesses, and adventure. It’s a rich story that can be enjoyed at all ages, and the lessons it teaches are excellent for any readers looking for something to read to your children. Indeed, it is said to be one of Tolkien’s favorites as a child. [Read it here.]


The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame


Publication Date: 1908

Adapted into a play by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh), as well as into one half of the Disney film “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (the other half being an adaptation of the Sleepy Hallow story), this is certainly the most famous of the underrated. Still, not many people have read the book and that is what this list is for. This is a cute children’s story about a wealthy toad, a water rat, a humble mole, and their adventures with other anthropomorphic creatures, the god Pan, and of course, a willow tree. [Read it here.]


The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison

Ereddison - Worm Ouroboros 2

Publication Date: 1922

This is my favorite novel. Written in a mock epic style, Eddison brings us through Mercury, a land divided into kingdoms like Witchland and Demonland, in a journey that spans what seems to be years with epic battles, magical beings, and three brothers. Goldry Bluszco, Lord Juss, and Lord Spitfire. What really makes this story excellent, though, is the ending – if you’d like to think of it as such. [Read it here.]


The Well at the World’s End
by William Morris


Publication Date: 1896

This book helped codify the classic fantasy story. And, indeed, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were influenced greatly by the works of William Morris, this novel in particular. Written in a medieval style, we follow the adventures of a young man on his quest for the eponymous well, one which will grant him immortality. A book of similar influence and greatness by William Morris is “The Wood Beyond the World,” and it is equally worth your time. [Read it here.]


The King of Elfland’s Daughter
by Lord Dunsany


Publication Date: 1924

This position goes less to “The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” and more to Lord Dunsany himself. He may be the most iconic writer of the fantasy genre prior to Tolkien coming about, yet few people know him at all these days. It’s quite a shame. Also, there is a concept album about it with vocals from the lead of Jethro Tull and Christopher Lee. [Read it here.]


The Faerie Queene
by Edmund Spenser


Publication Date: 1590 – 1596

Jumping back three centuries from most of the works on this list, we have the poet Edmund Spenser. This unfinished epic poem was written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and details a number of faerie tales, Arthurian epics, and classic, fantasy fun. It is also one of the longest poems in the English language, the origin of Spenserian stanza, and the old cliché ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ is found in its earliest form in this poem. How can you not want to pick it up? [Read it here.]

  • vex279

    nice list

  • I love The Wind in the Willows.

  • muscarius

    Where is the Bible?

    • Milander

      someone delete this post…..

    • Numsgil

      Mythology and fantasy are not the same thing.

  • hazmiguel


    I imagine that will show up in the much awaited 'Top 10 Overrated Fantasy Stories Before 1937'

    • Rybread

      lmao, your kinda mean.

  • bluesman87

    @muscarius: HAHa i was gonna say the same thing!

  • This is a fantastic list for bibliophiles like me..and you have included the links also to read 'em. Can't get better than that. Great work (Applause)

  • @muscarius:

    Haha high five. My thoughts exactly.

  • bluesman87

    @Dave Durdans: @muscarius: @hazmiguel:As a responsible sensible person I just feel i should say in regards to the sensitivity of this religious matter represented in the above comments that i wouldv at LEAST given jesus retractable adamantium claws or lazer eyes you know to spice things up….but id keep the whole never ending wine thing…..

  • chapman6640

    Good list, another datum point for me, for my quench of fantasy bookas :).

  • chapman6640


  • Well played, hazmiguel.

  • oouchan

    Interesting list. I always loved The Wind in the Willows. I will have to check out the rest of these, especially The Well at the World’s End. That just looks good.

  • Always loved the Faerie Queen. :D

  • Moonbeam

    I'm so happy to see The Wind in the Willows included here, it's always been one of my favorite books. Check out the 1996 movie – sometimes sold under a different title, Mr Toad's Wild Ride. It has many of the Monty Python stars in it; Terry Jones (who wrote and directed it as well), Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and John Cleese (in a cameo role). If you see it expecting a typical Monty Python farce, you'll be disappointed. It's more like a children's movie with an offbeat silliness that adults can appreciate. It's not an accurate retelling of the book, but Terry Jones' unique take on it.

  • Scratch

    I had only heard of two of these – thanks for not rehashing the plots.

    How are regular orchards supposed to compete against fairy fruit? I'd be pissed too if I owned an orchard in the Land of Lud in the Mist. The only way to compete would be to wage some kind of homophobic media campaign.

  • Arsnl

    @bluesman87: Dude you have to reply immediatly after a joke not sit 2 hours and think it out. Plus its spelled stimulated not ztimulated.

  • flamehorse

    I've read the Faerie Queene, and my Lord, you talk about a laid-back writing style. It's the slowest- paced book I've ever seen.

  • Lifeschool

    hi, I remember being taken through The Water Babies at one point at school – the whole class read it – but I couldn't tell you the plot right now – it was a while ago. :)

    Mr Toad – anyone else find that guy creepy? I did – and still do actually. He was a reckless driver – perhaps this was the first written example of Road Rage?

    I played a game called Myst once – I wonder if it connects to #10 in any way? I was rubbish at it – I preferred Monkey Island.

  • wicket18

    @flamehorse: You are so right! It was one of the slowest thing I've ever read. It's a good story, but slow.

  • bluesman87

    @Arsnl: dude please elaborate ? what the fuck are you on about ? maybe im slow…

  • @flamehorse: Haha, yeah, it is a mighty slow read. And I do believe it was meant to be about four times longer than it already is, but Spenser died before he could ever complete it. Still, it is a solid collection.

  • I loved The Wind in the Willows. And I'm a huge fan of William Hope Hodgson. I don't know if "The Ghost Pirates" or his other stuff would qualify for your list but very creepy if you like ghost stories. I also loved Lost Horizon, despite the dreadful, unfortunate musical movie that was based on it. The book was wonderful.

  • General Tits Von Cho

    I'll have to check some of these out

  • Delighted with your list. I saw your blog on the Freshly Pressed page and just had to see if Lord Dunsany made your list. Hurrah! He did and some others I knew but did not realize their antiquity. Even better, you've given me a short list of writers I am unfamiliar with and wish to look into. Thank you for this post.

  • Thank you for that list. I love Pre-Tolkien fantasy and I've had the hardest time finding it.

  • Arsnl

    @bluesman87: you posted a comment at 1:57 and then a joke related to the same topic at 3:33. Thats 1:36 mins to make a joke.

  • I feel so glad that I've read most of these books already. :D I remember trying to read The Water Babies when I was 9, finding it a bit too hard to fully understand and trying again when I was 13 and then once more at 15. It didn't help that my copy of the book was printed in TINY font. >__<

    • Milander

      The film is very good, good enough to be watched first and book read second if you want the finer details.

  • fantastic list! i'll have to come back to this in the summer when i have lots of time to read!

  • undaunted warrior 1

    I enjoyed The Wind in the Willows it was a good read.

  • Lifeschool

    @Arsnl (26): What am I walking about…

    I'm playing with my Organ, someone is blowing my Horn, she's yanking on my Trombone, and I'm fingering fondly my hard wood Double Bass?

    That's Right! I'm talking JAZZ FUNK.

    (there you go, I made a dick joke in response to a post you made seven lists ago! – and you're point IS??)

  • Interesting list, I'll try to check out some of them.

  • Excellent list (although some of your commenters are real jackasses)! I plan on reading each of these. Thank you so much. :)

  • Arsnl

    @Lifeschool: haha funny joke. Now let me think 1h for a reply. Count down begins…

  • Thanks for posting! I definitely need to check out Water Babies and House on the Borderland.

  • Lud-in-the-Mist is a fantastic book. Thanks for putting it on your list. I read it in high school and fell in love with the bumbling, middle-aged, decidedly strait-laced protagonist, Nathanial Chanticleer.

  • nascentbenedictine

    Good list. I have read some of the books. Ther are so0me other good books by Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, and William Morris. Back in the 60's, I think, Ballantine published a series pf paperbacks called the "Ballantine Adult Fantasy" series. I think it was 60 books. It contains some of the authors and titles listed.

  • Lifeschool

    @Arsnl: BZZZZZt! Time's up dude. :D

  • Arsnl

    @Lifeschool: putain.

  • Scratch


    C'mon man, he needs more time. Right now all he's got is French cussing.

  • Lifeschool


    Hallo kiddies; here's a story from the old brown shoe…

    [opens book]

    It was a dark and stormy night – the wind deafening each laboured footfall as you trudge the lane towards the welcoming light of the Bridgewater Arms. A familiar heavy wooden door opens with a groan – and a wave of chatter and soft candle light rushes to greet you. You step inside, taking a second to glance around those familiar faces; gesturing a gratious nod as they tip their hats in return. Dancing in the hearth, a few glowing embers of a coppiced Cedar remain – beckoning you – warming your bones.

    The seasoned landlord stands – at once recognising your character and demeanour – and cracks the pleasant smile of a tempered friend. You deserve a drink. The landlord obliges, and watches you without a sound as the liquid brims a flagon. A coin rolls itself to a standstill.

    "There are strange mutterings", the landlord begins as you raise your right elbow.

    "Strange…?", you hesitate to counter.

    "Some say there are wild folk about", he confides leaning towards you, "with strange apparel – of many colours…"

    A half-smile flickers undetected behind your sympathetic gaze.

    "Some say they have seen….", the landlord waves you closer – until you can smell his skin; like old tanner hide, "a green faerie, and a man dressed as a… as a…" he rolls his eyes for a moment before fixing them on yours "… as a HOB GOBLIN! WA-HA-HA-HAAAA!!!"

    THE END.

  • undaunted warrior 1

    @Lifeschool40 Brilliant just brilliant thanks pal you have just made my evening bed time now, its nearly 10 pm here.

  • Are you familiar with Eleanor Cameron? The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954) was my introduction to science fiction. Four books follow it in the Mushroom Planet series. I was sooo taken with the first Mushroom Planet book that I read it to my elementary school kids every year. Another of Cameron's books, The Court of the Stone Children, is also incredibly entertaining. I read it just two years ago, finally, even though I'd had it in our library almost fifteen years.

  • nicoleredz3

    Ophiucha, most excellent job!

    I have read: The Wind in the Willows, The Faerie Queene and The Worm Ouroboros. This list brought back a lot of childhood memories…

    I'll have to agree with you and say that The Worm Ouroboros is also my favorite novel, well at least on this compilation.

    @Lifeschool: (40)


  • P.S. Until moments ago, I hadn't thought back farther than Eleanor Cameron. Lud-in-the-Mist really caught my eye, so I'm sharing this post with my husband (hint, hint). Thanks!

  • I wonder why no L. Frank Baum, "The Magnificent Wizard of Oz"? It led to a whole series of books and inspired the iconic film.

  • @thorsaurus: (45):

    —title of the list is *underrated* fantasy stories……i dont think "the wizard of oz" (or for that matter "the adventures of alice in wonderland" or hans christian's stories) would count as underrated by any stretch……even if they do fit the timeline…..

  • I read "the princess and the goblin" over and over again as a kid. I had this awesome version with giant pictures. The memories :)

  • @Deli Lanoux, Ed.D.: The Court of the Stone Children, I believe I read that. I can't say I recall much about it, but I will certainly look for the author next time I am on a book binge. The title alone, "The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet", is quite compelling.

  • maydelory

    Nice list. The Wind in the Willows illustrated by robert ingpen pub by is a nice reprint. Lovely illustrations.

  • Scratch


    There's also a great graphic novel adaptation of the Wind in the Willows by Michel Plessix.

  • Personally, I would have included MacDonald's Phantastes.

  • @oliveralbq: I was thinking the same thing, until I came across the Wind in the Willows, considered a classic. Certainly not underrated.

  • Lara Ehrlich

    What a wonderful list! Thank you so much. I have always loved THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN. I read it in one light during a blizzard in Vermont when I was really little. It has the most extraordinary mood, and every time I think about that book–even today–I get a rush of that warm, magical feeling I had when reading about the princess whose grandmother visited her in the tower late at night and combed her hair in a round bed. I'm afraid to reread and let go of my memory of reading the book for the first time!

  • There's an animated movie about The Wind in the Willow. I love it. I haven't read about the other books.

  • @thorsaurus: (52):

    —right you are……..not underrated at all….in fact, ive spent the last fifteen minutes trying to justify its place here, and i dont get it…..

    i thought maybe it wasnt recieved well at the time….not the case …in fact getting a boost from teddy roosevelt who was reported to have read it many times. and spending many a week on the london times best seller list……..i thought perhaps it got stale over time, but both uk and us bands named things after parts of the book (see van morrisons song, and pink floyds album, 'piper at the gates of dawn', cali band 'wayfarers all', mr. beaver)…things like this will make people who arent familiar, take notice (kinds like rush and iron maiden both did for samuel taylor coleridge's poetry (kubla kahn and rime of the ancient mariner, respectively)

    it had several animated adaptations…one by disney, who then parlayed its success into a ride at disney world (or disneyland?) and 'mr. toads wild ride' (weird terry jones flick)

    shit, even 12 of the 55 comments made so far reference willows….thats like 21% of the comments…

    so im back to not getting it how its underrated…

    help ophiucha

    i get the other 9 and love the list….thankye

  • Thank you for posting this list. As a Tolkien enthusiast I enjoy reading works that may or may not have had an influence upon him.

    Much appreciated.

  • @oliveralbq, @thorsaurus: In regards to The Wind in the Willows, it mostly ended up on the list because, unlike Peter Pan, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, while many people have HEARD of it, not many people have actually READ it. Also, as far as Disney movies are concerned, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were WAY better (and, indeed, far better known – I know many people who've never heard of nor seen this film) than Ichabod and Mr. Toad, not to mention WitW didn't even get the full movie to itself. Wizard of Oz, of course, being one of the most iconic films in cinematic history.

    If you cared, though, I did consider a few other things for that spot. Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice; The Shaving of Shagpat; and The Green Child. Feel free to pretend one of those is in the spot, instead.

  • Great list. I love the Faerie Queene, Lost Horizon, just about anything by Lord Dunsany, and The Wind In The Willows. I'll have to check out the other stuff on here.

    I'm surprised so few people know about Dunsany these days since he was such a big influence on H.P. Lovecraft. The only thing I would've added to the list would be Edwin Abbott's Flatland.

  • @Ophiucha: (57):

    –i had to read willow in school, causing me to high-ball its popularity….

    thanks for the clarification

    ill just take all three of your alternate suggestions and create a 3-way tie for 5th place;)

  • @muscarius:

    Umm, the title of the post includes the word "underrated"…

  • I'm also glad to learn of some of these. I haven't read all of them, and will look forward to that.

    I don't think you can fairly put in Lost Horizon as underrated, since it was a huge best-seller upon it's initial printing and was made into a popular film (quite a good one) in 1937.

  • I'd put the Volsunga Saga (Niebelungenlied in Germany) in there too, if only because people seem to think of it as either an opera or an afterthought in Tolkien. Or do really old stories not count?

    Also, @ianheath653's suggestion seconded. Not enough people appreciate 'Flatland'.

    (Will be reading these now.)

  • bluesman87

    @Arsnl: oh ok i see no my mind was on something else.(getting my new car woohooo!!)

  • I'm going to suggest this booklist to my bookclub.

    don't know how my chances fair though, as so far I haven't been able to get them past "Twilight" *sigh*

  • sadmuso


    Haha, nice!

  • For "The Water Babies", there's an illustrated html version at Project Gutenberg at You might want to have the link refer to this instead.;)

  • I so well remember The Water Babies in my grandmother's walnut bookshelf, which I've since inherited, and of course, the Wind in The Willows is essential to read every Spring.

    Have you ever read a href="">Roverandom by Tolkein? It's a little known, but very worthy, work of his.

    I enjoyed your post very much, as an ardent bibliophile. ;)

  • @ianheath653: Ah, Flatland, that one was pretty good. I thought about that one, but decided against it because it was really was a bit too much in the sci-fi genre. It's sort of hard to define these things, as they were all really one big genre, but I'm gonna make that call. Maybe I'll do a 10 Underrated Science-Fiction Stories Before… hmm, dunno what the big cut off date would be, there. Probably something by Verne or Wells, but it isn't as clear cut as Tolkien.

    @neurotype: I decided against Volsungs/Nibelungenlied because it sort of borders on the religious, albeit for a dead religion, and that could easily be a separate list of ten entirely. Still a good read, though. I'm trying to get one of my friends to read it, but she's more into Twilight and books of that sort.

    @Bellezza: I've never read it, but I do recall reading the summary on Wikipedia at some point in the past. I'll be sure to check it out. :)

  • Nazreel

    These are great. I have read about half of them and am now looking forward to reading the other half.

    One of the best chapters in any of them is "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" in Wind in the Willows.

    I had Measles very badly in early 1961 during an epidemic in which quite a few children died (get your vaccinations!), and when I was at my worst, with a high temperature and all the attendant miseries, I had my poor parents read me this chapter over and over again.

    I have, and have had several pet cats, and I like to think that Pan, as he is portrayed in this book, is waiting to watch over them when they come to the end of their time on this earth, till we all meet again!

  • lemongrass

    The Princess and the Goblin was made into a movie as well. I had it when I was a kid, and remember loving it too.

  • Anyone else read number 4 and think of that brillint episode of red dwarf?

    Our Rob or Ross?

  • ladyserenity92

    As I child, I loved these books. I hope someday that the 'Neo-Genaration' go into the 'public domain' section and discover these rare gems.

  • Corum

    Loved House on the Borderland, also The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, reminds me of Andre Norton's Writing, both on Project Gutenberg. He was was killed in the first world war, what a shame.

  • Mabel

    Wow, what a great list. And thanks for including links to the books. It's so awesome that they are online for us to read, because finding hard copies of out-of-print books can be extremely difficult.

  • tsunamicharly

    I was surprised that Cabell's "Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice wasn't here. Of course I may be the last living soul that enjoys his work, or even remembers who he is. :)

  • Nazreel

    @tsunamicharly [75]: No, I've read him.

  • @tsunamicharly [75]: I considered putting it on the list – it probably would have been number 12, were I going over.

  • Ivan Stoikov – Allan Bard

    Good list! I haven’t even heard of most of them! Will be glad to read some of the list! But it seems even then authors used the old, classical characters like dragons, elves, dwarves, vampires, kings, wizards with sharp hats, etc… I guess in fantasy/sci-fy genres authors should also strive to create new, unseen creatures to bring some fresh blood? Creatures like weightless korks, Brown faces, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, glowing, living balls, fiery men, etc I use in some of my works sound much more interesting than the usual we see and read in very fantasy book?

  • YouRang?

    The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles G. Finney. Published about 1936. Best fantasy story ever, I believe.

    we have one writer on the list, Hodgson, who’s thought of primarily as a horror writer. If we want to open this up to horror writers, I can think of several more who should be on here. So much horror, especially the older stories, has that fantasy element to it.

    Some of the most underrated books ever are the Oz books. They were popular in their time, but the average modern person doesn’t even know there are any Oz books but the Wizard, and they know that one, if they know it exists, only because of the movie. And this is a shame, because there is some wonderful reading there.

  • Joshkdmw

    The Faerie Queene is a slow-ass poem, written to keep a queen happy, and is in its entirety a meditation on Christianity and what it means to be a good christian – without the courtesy of even a thin veil. It’s a lot like The Screwtape Letters (or most of Lewis’ works).

    It’s great as far as the history of literature goes, and an important read for scholarly types, but it is severely lacking in entertainment value, and very high-handed in its morality.

    You have been warned.

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